In the Smoke of Notre Dame: To all the Churches I’ve Loved
As the embers cool in the devastated sections of Notre Dame de Paris and the world comes together to restore it, it seems a good time to reflect on the effect that historic churches and cathedrals have had on my own life.
While raised in the Church of England as a child and teen, it wasn’t until I arrived in Europe from Australia that I became a regular churchgoer – and even then, not attending services.
“Perhaps most importantly, who exactly is the jewelled skeleton in the corner?”
The Treasure House
The first church I stepped into, upon coming to Germany to teach, was the imposing, cavernous Michaelskirche that sits overlooking the old town of Schwäbisch Hall, outside of Stuttgart – shepherding a pack of half-tamed Year 7 students.
Even with one eye on the students, it was obvious that this was a special place. Originally built in the 11th century, with substantial alterations in the 14th century, the church was full of treasures of woodcarving and metalwork hailing from the last 500 years. These were a result of the immensely profitable salt trading that won the city its free imperial status.
To be honest, I’d never seen something as beautiful in my life.
The Fool’s Hospital
Over the next couple of years, especially after crossing the Channel, I increasingly found myself going out of my way to visit the historic churches I came across.
Crashing and burning from teaching in 2016, I had a lot more time in my hands. Wandering further and further afield, I one day found myself at the Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, in London’s Smithfield.
Now here was a church with a tale, if ever there was one.
St Bartholomew’s was founded in 1123 by Rahere, one of the courtiers of Henry I, sometimes described as a jester.
So the legend goes, following the death of Henry’s son in the White Ship disaster, Rahere asked to go on pilgrimage to Rome. On the way there, he fell sick, most probably with malaria.
In the midst of his illness, he had a vision of St Batholomew, who commanded him to build a church in his honour. Upon his recovery, Rahere returned home and asked Henry to grant him a monastic foundation.
Henry agreed, and within 20 years, the Priory loomed over the emerging Smithfield Market. Each year, the Batholomew Fair, granted by charter, led to the Priory growing larger. Stories tell of an aged Rahere entertaining local children by juggling and performing the tricks he once did for the king.
Over the next few centuries, the Priory would become an important centre for medicine and healing. Medieval medical texts from the Priory exist to this day, listing cures for everything from cuts to childbirth complications. Indeed, it would lead to the foundation of modern St Bart’s.
I was entranced by the stories relating to the church. In time, over subsequent visits and meetings, I became involved in efforts to tell these stories to visiting schoolchildren.
It felt good, important, keeping the tales alive.
“I can’t bear to see Aphra’s resting place collapse. I’ll do what I can to save her.”
The Drowning Girl
My interest in historic churches led to my involvement with the Churches Conservation Trust, volunteering on a number of projects.
One of those was Champing, a kind of ‘glamping’ held in churches opened by the Trusr, in order to maintain them.
During this time, I was lucky enough to stay for two nights at St Mary the Virgin, outside Canterbury, in Kent.
Over two nights my wife and I enjoyed the ambience of a space considered holy since the very beginnings of Christianity in England – 620 AD.
Indeed, St Augustine, the missionary responsible for establishing Christianity there, was said to have lodged not too far from the church, and died close by.
Funnily enough, it wasn’t the ancient origins of the church that caught my attention. It was the lives of those associated with it.
In the central aisle lies a brass to Aphra Hawkins, a young woman who died in 1605. She’s presented in the fashion of the era – ruff included, and smiles warmly across the centuries.
There’s a chance that Aphra, before her untimely death, was one of the people of Fordwich to cram into the church to watch the King’s Players, including one William Shakespeare, when they were forced to perform in Fordwich – Canterbury’s gates had been closed due to plague.
There’s also a chance that Aphra may be lost to us a second time, however, as the church subsides and sags on the wet banks of the River Stour. Restoration work to prevent further damage is essential.
I can’t bear to see Aphra’s resting place collapse. I’ll do what I can to save her.
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The Jeweled Skeleton
Earlier this year, while wandering the back streets of Vienna, we came across the Ruprechtskirche – the city’s oldest church, founded in the 8th century.
The Ruprechtskirche isn’t the most impressive church in Vienna – hell, it isn’t the most impressive in the neighbourhood. What it does have, however, are questions.
So many questions.
There are the questions of who passed through its doors when it was the chief place to buy and sell salt in the early city, and where they hailed from.
There are questions of those who were imprisoned in one dark, dank room of the church tower when it was a prison. What had they done to deserve that fate?
Perhaps most importantly, who exactly is the jeweled skeleton in the corner?
It was gifted to the church in the 18th century by Empress Maria Theresia, as a token of her esteem. It was said to be the bones of a Roman martyr.
But whose bones? Whose remains were pulled from the catacombs and covered in silk and jewels? What would they think of the treatment?
These are questions that I still think about, months later. I sometimes pull out books to browse through them, looking for an answer.
Throughout my adult life, my exploration of historic churches has inspired me with their beauty, the very human stories that arise around them, and the very real mysteries they present us with.
I am sure that these are the same feelings shared by millions, especially Parisians, about Notre Dame de Paris.
To be honest, I’d never seen something as beautiful in my life.
I know they will come together to rebuild her with beautiful things, and add another layer to the edifice – a new slew of stories…
…and, if we’re lucky, mysteries for our descendants to unravel.